logo

Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

COMMONS MAGAZINE

Posted
February 10, 2015

The Promise of Co-ops Connecting with the Commons

Peer production and commoners meet the solidarity economy and rich co-operative traditions: A new report explores the intriguing potential

(By Alyce Santoro under a Creative Commons license.)

Is it possible to imagine a new sort of synthesis or synergy between the emerging peer production and commons movement on the one hand, and growing, innovative elements of the co-operative and solidarity economy movements on the other? 

That was the animating question behind a two-day workshop, “Toward an Open Co-operativism,” held in August 2014 and now chronicled in a new report by UK co-operative expert Pat Conaty and me.  (Pat is a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and a Research Associate of Co-operatives UK, and attended the workshop.) 

The workshop was convened because the commons movement and peer production share a great deal with co-operatives....but they also differ in profound ways.  Both share a deep commitment to social cooperation as a constructive social and economic force.  Yet both draw upon very different histories, cultures, identities and aspirations in formulating their visions of the future.  There is great promise in the two movements growing more closely together, but also significant barriers to that occurring.

The workshop explored this topic, as captured by the subtitle of the report:  “A New Social Economy Based on Open Platforms, Co-operative Models and the Commons,” hosted by the Commons Strategies Group in Berlin, Germany, on August 27 and 28, 2014. The workshop was supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, with assistance with the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation of France. 

Below, the Introduction to the report . You can download a pdf of the full report (28 pages) here. The entire report is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 license, so feel free to re-post it. Excerpted from Bollier.org, featuring news and perspective on the commons from David Bollier. 

For people who participate in commons, peer production or co-operatives, the emerging economy presents a frustrating paradox in the enormous mismatch between cooperative culture on the one hand and the organizational forms, on the other hand, that can sustain it and advance the general well-being of society. 

New forms of peer production are creating common pools of knowledge, code and design and entirely new socio-economic-technical sectors of production and governance.  This sprawling, eclectic realm based on free software, open knowledge, open design and open hardware relies upon social collaboration and sharing, and aspires to become a sector of self-sustaining and autonomous commons. 

Unfortunately, because its economic forms are generally embedded in capitalist economies – dependent on closed intellectual property, venture capital funding, for-profit corporate structures, and so forth – the new “open models” are generally subordinated to hyper-competitive markets with capitalist dynamics.  Notwithstanding brash claims for the liberating potential of the “sharing economy,” peer production on open platforms may simply replace the more classic forms of proprietary capitalism with a commons/corporate hybrid that commandeers various commons to serve the interests of capital.

Meanwhile, the co-operative movement in many parts of the world faces its own challenges in coming to terms with contemporary technologies and the political economy.  A number of large co-operatives now resemble global corporations in their market behaviors, organizational cultures and management styles.  If they are not fending off threats of privatization, their managers and policies function at a distance from co-op members, who often no longer participate actively or take part in a shared culture.  As for smaller co-ops, many have been shunted to the margins of both the market and society by larger dominant forces. Thus without creative solutions they are unable to compete in large, concentrated markets or embrace networking technologies that might enhance their co-operative powers. 

For these and other reasons, the co-operative movement, despite its illustrious history and impressive organizational and financial models, no longer inspires the popular social imagination or has the élan and dramatic impact that it did in, say, the 1890s, 1920s or 1970s.  The power of global capital and markets, digital technologies and consumerist culture has operated perversely in ways that have reined in the ambitions of some parts of the co-operative movement.

In recent years, however, there has been a renewed sense of purpose and confidence across the international co-operative sector.  The United Nations declared 2012 “International Year of Co-operatives,” and in the same year, a rejuvenated International Co-operative Alliance adopted an ambitious blueprint for a “co-operative decade” intended to establish the business and ecological leadership of the co-operative model, in which ownership rests with those most closely involved in the business. There is also a growing receptivity to the idea of open co-operativism, as seen in Robin Murray’s book, Co-operation in the Age of Google – a theme that echoes the cardinal first principle of the co-operative movement, “open and inclusive membership.”

These are welcome developments because a decline of co-operatives diminishes the general welfare of society.  The general public increasingly has few alternatives to large, predatory corporations whose anti-social behaviors are often sanctioned by captive legislators and state bureaucracies.  While the “social economy” is gaining ground in many parts of the world and some commercial sectors, its benefits are often killed in the cradle or kept within strict limits.  The market/state duopoly, a partnership that divides responsibility for production and governance while pushing an agenda of relentless economic growth and neoliberal policies, continues largely unchecked.

All of this prompts the question:  Is it possible to imagine a new sort of synthesis or synergy between the emerging peer production and commons movement on the one hand, and growing, innovative elements of the co-operative and solidarity economy movements on the other?  Both share a deep commitment to social cooperation as a constructive social and economic force.  Yet both draw upon very different histories, cultures, identities and aspirations in formulating their visions of the future.  There is both great promise in the two movements growing more closely together, but also significant barriers to that occurring.

Exploring the Possibilities of an Open Co-operativism

A core question of the workshop was:  How can social cooperation in contemporary life be structured to better serve the interests of the co-operators/commoners and society in general, in a techno/political economy that currently insists upon appropriating surplus value for private capital?

Commoners tend to approach this question from a different perspective, history and focus than many in the co-operative movement.  That’s because commoners tend to occupy a space outside of markets, for example, while co-operatives are generally market entities themselves.  Commoners tend to have few institutional resources or revenue streams, but instead rely upon powerful networks of collaboration based on open platforms. 

By contrast, co-operatives today constitute a substantial segment of modern economies.  There are more than 1 billion co-op members in 2.6 million co-operatives around the world, and they generate an estimated US$2.98 trillion in annual revenue.  If this economy were a united country, it would be the fifth largest economy in the world, after Germany.

Yet the transformative impact of this economic power is less than its size would suggest.  Where there is a strong co-operative presence, such as local banking in Germany, housing in Sweden or farming in India, co-ops can change market outcomes. But where they are a minority competitor, unless they are innovators, many co-ops have simply adapted to the competitive practices and ethic of the capitalist economy and politics, rather than struggling to re-invent “co-operative commonwealth” models for our time.  Their influence in national political life is no longer as progressive and innovative as it once was, nor as focused on improving the lot of ordinary citizens.  There are many reasons:  the scale of older co-operative enterprises, the distance between managers and beneficiary-members, the backward-looking terms of existing legislation for co-ops, and the cultural affinities between “new co-ops” and the social and solidarity economy movement.

The purpose of this workshop was to explore the opportunities for a convergence of efforts between commoners and cooperators, especially in the blending the institutional and financial know-how of co-operatives with the explosive power of digital technologies and open networks.  Can we find new ways to blend the innovative, participatory ethic of peer production with the historical experience and wisdom of the cooperative movement?  What fruitful convergences between these two forms of social cooperation might we identify and cultivate?  What are the possibilities for achieving new forms of “cooperative accumulation,” in which people’s contributions to shared commons would be coupled with value-added services that generate incomes and in-kind provisioning for cooperators/commoners? 

A project of open co-operativism would address two important, unresolved issues:  1) the problem of livelihoods in a digital commons economy (how can the economy reproduce itself and inaugurate a different social and economic logic if everyone works without payment?); and 2) the challenge of co-operatives and solidarity economies in leveraging the enormous potential of the new information and communications technologies, and avoiding subordination to the logic and discipline of capital.

“Cooperative accumulation” could occupy a space between commons that have limited or no engagement with markets, and capitalist enterprises that seek to extract private profits and accumulate capital.  This intermediary form, open co-operativism, could constitute a new sector in which commoners might pool resources, allocate them fairly and sustainably, and earn livelihoods as members of cooperatives – more or less outside of conventional capitalist markets.  What we envisage here is the creation and nurturing of new types of non-capitalist or post-capitalist markets that re-embeds them in social communities and accountability structures.

The key, of course, is how to conceptualize and implement this convergence.  A number of promising ideas have been suggested, such as co-operative entrepreneurs co-producing commons; coalitions of ethical entrepreneurs using copyright-based licenses to create zones of production protected from capital and conventional markets; and new models of local, distributed production linked to globally shared knowledge networks.  Other ideas remain intriguing but underdeveloped, such as the potential role that co-operative governance might play in commons-based peer production and, conversely, the ways in which self-governance in digital sectors might be applied in the co-operative and social solidarity economy. 

It is our hope, however, that this report will stimulate useful inquiry, debate, innovation and a new convergence of movements.